Writing by Peter Hilton

Alternative foreign language learning goals

Reasons other than needing to become fluent 2024-05-14 #language #learning

Ryoma Onita

We often talk about how to learn a foreign language, but not always about why. Living abroad has given me the strongest motivation to become fluent in other languages. But I’ve also found other reasons to learn a few phrases, or just the basics.

Breaking the ice

As a native English speaker, I need to speak in a foreign language less often than the non-native English speakers I meet. But I can turn that around: anything I do say in their language will often surprise them. The last colleague I tried this on laughed, and said, ‘oh, this is fun’.

In my twenties, I compiled a European phrase book to make this more systematic. And while I’ve never been able to remember all of the phrases in all of the languages at the same time, I can quickly look up how to say: hello, please, thank you and cheers!

Making friends

When I worked in Luxembourg for six months, French seemed like the most useful language, among the several that the locals use daily. I already spoke French well enough, so I spent my employer’s language course budget on Luxembourgish lessons. Luxembourgish offers excellent value: you only need to know one word to get a smile from native speakers.

The evening classes were sociable, and a nice break from hanging out with colleagues. I didn’t stay in touch with my classmates, in the end, while a colleague who took French classes at the same time later married the teacher.

A recurring group activity with a shared goal provides a good environment for making friends. Many people make lifelong friends at university, for example. And language classes, like anything practical, creative or sporty, work on a smaller scale.

Going on holiday

My 2004 sabbatical gave me time to travel, and visit friends in countries I’d previously lived in, including Luxembourg. I also wanted to go somewhere new, and organised a month’s ‘holiday’ in Madrid by signing up at a language school.

Combining a language course with several weeks’ holiday works really well, because you get more out of both. You learn faster because you have more opportunities to practice, but you also get more out of the place you visit. Cheap language school accommodation may allow you to stay longer, teachers give you good tips about where to go, and you have plenty of classmates to go with.

Casual gaming

More recently, I’ve discovered that Duolingo’s very gentle learning curve and short lessons scratch the same itch as casual mobile games. Learning even the basics of a new language seems more productive than playing 2048 ever did. So now I can score points while progressing through language levels instead of game levels, and learn something useful.

Reducing friction when travelling

It turns out that nine months of Duolingo Japanese lessons (averaging 15-30 minutes/day) gave me basic proficiency that proved useful on a recent trip to Japan. I didn’t need to be able to have a conversation in Japanese, but I got a lot out of my ability to navigate train travel, shopping, and eating out.

Since the trip, I’ve switched to Duolingo’s Norwegian lessons. I now look forward to showing off to my new colleagues in Oslo, and finding it less often necessary to switch our product language to English.

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